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Book Review: Tactics: A Game Plan For Discussing Your Christian Convictions

Book Review: "Tactics: A Game Plan For Discussing Your Christian Convictions" by Greg Koukl of Stand to Reason (str.org)


I was introduced to the apologetic work of Greg Koukl almost ten years ago. I remember when his book "Tactics: A Game Plan for Discussing Your Christian Convictions" (softcover, Kindle, Quotes) was released I could not wait to get my copy. I was still trying to get my footing on how to defend the Christian worldview, and this book provided a foundation for my approach that has lasted since then. Because it was so important and vital to my confidence in sharing the reasons for the hope that I have, I decided to bring it out again and do a review for those who are not yet aware of the value of this book for, not just apologists but, every Christian. This review will be a chapter-by-chapter summary of the contents of the book. I have deliberately left out many details but given enough to hopefully pique your curiosity enough to get your own copy to read and be blessed by.

Part One: The Game Plan

Chapter 1: Diplomacy or D-Day?

Koukl introduces his book by describing a situation that seems all-too-common for Christians: even though we have been called by Christ to tell people about Him, we do not out of fear of not being able to defend what we believe. Koukl explains that this fear is unnecessary and demonstrates by recounting a conversation he had with a skeptic. He uses various tactics in maneuvering through the conversation that kept the exchange natural, comfortable for both parties, yet caused the skeptic to question her worldview. Koukl reminds the Christian that it is important to maintain a calm and collected demeanor while discussing, and he explains that the keys to that is to be prepared. Preparation includes having some working knowledge and being able to skillfully steer the conversation.

If Christianity is true, then the Christian has nothing to fear from discussing worldviews. If they pay close attention to the skeptic's claims they can not only identify the faulty reasoning but be able to highlight it in a way that causes the skeptic to think hard about the implications of their view. Koukl offers several tactics that he will explain throughout the book to help the Christian gain confidence to winsomely initiate and navigate discussion regarding the Gospel.

Chapter 2: Reservations

Several concerns often arise when promoting the idea of developing "tactics" in presenting the Gospel. Koukl's "tactics" are part of defending the Christian faith, formally called "apologetics." Apologetics involves arguing for the truth of the Christian worldview. However, the "arguing" is not the "fighting" type that threatens unity (as many Christians fear apologetics is); it is rather a presentation of accepted facts in a reasonable way to soundly conclude the truth of Christianity. Koukl explains that if arguing (in the proper sense) is discouraged in  the Church, then no real knowledge can be obtained, so it is necessary if we wish to grow in our faith.

Some Christians avoid arguments simply because they believe that they do not ultimately work in evangelism. Koukl explains that arguments are often used effectively in evangelism, not to mention that Jesus, Paul and Peter used arguments, as documented in the New Testament. Koukl not only recognizes the necessity of the Holy Spirit for conversion, but he also observes that love and/or a simple presentation of the Gospel are useless one their own. The fact that arguments must be accompanied by the work of the Holy Spirit (just as love and presentation of the Gospel do) does not mean that arguments are not powerful, it just means that they alone cannot close the deal. Because of the necessity of God to work in the life of a skeptic, it frees the Christian to have a more modest goal in discussion of merely giving the person something to ponder: a "stone in their shoe" as Koukl likes to say. The removal of the burden of "sealing the deal" also helps remove the fear of engagement. The Christian is free to sow seeds as opportunities are presented without the unreasonable expectation of conversion every time.

Chapter 3: Getting in the Driver's Seat: The Columbo Tactic

The first tactic is called "Columbo" after the TV detective. This tactic focuses on asking questions. It is best to begin asking merely informational questions. The chief informational question is "what do you mean by that?" This question can take many different forms; really, any question that asks for clarification is such a question. Informational questions have multiple purposes. The first is to keep the conversation cordial. Questions are usually non-threatening, so they keep the conversation going while tension and stress remain low. The second is to better understand the person's view. It is important that their view is understood properly and not misrepresented in the discussion. The third is to steer the conversation. This allows the questioner the ability to remain in the "driver's seat" and guide the conversation, which will also keep the stress level down.

Chapter 4: Columbo Step Two: The Burden of Proof

It is important to remember that when a person is merely asking questions, they are not making any particular claims- it is the other person who is making the claims. The burden of proof always lies with the person making the claims. Asking questions only is not a ploy to escape the burden of proof but to understand the claims made by the other person.

The second tactic promoted by Koukl is called "reversing the burden of proof." The question that is associated with this tactic is "how did you come to that conclusion?" This question is a request for the person making the claim to present an argument for their claim. While many people offer an explanation or assert something, they rarely have thought through the argument that leads to the conclusion. This can often catch people off-guard because they have not thought that deeply about their view, but this question can be quite valuable to get information of the foundations of their view if they are able to articulate an argument. This new information allows the person asking the questions to remain in control of the conversation.

Chapter 5: Step Three: Using Columbo to Lead the Way

It is always important to have a goal in mind when asking questions. This will allow one to steer the conversation. As the first uses of the Columbo tactic move the conversation forward, more information is gathered that will reveal weaknesses in the person's view. These weaknesses are an opportunity to guide the conversation toward the intended goal. Koukl reminds the reader to keep using questions. Questions that are intended to point out a contradiction or pose a serious challenge can be asked respectfully by prefacing them with phrases like "have you considered..." Koukl emphasizes that the goal in asking the questions in this manner is to "be shrewd as serpents and innocent as doves." (Matthew 10:16).

Chapter 6: Perfecting Columbo

Koukl explains to the reader that initially starting to converse in this way will be difficult. He encourages the reader to engage in the conversations more and more despite any perceived failings. Any time the reader gets stumped is an opportunity to research for the next conversation on the topic. Koukl also encourages the reader to go over conversations in their minds; playback the conversation that just happened and think of questions that may have better guided the person to the goal. It is important to remember that even though God or Jesus may not have been mentioned or a presentation of the Gospel was not given, the Kingdom is still being advanced because the questioner is helping the skeptic to think more clearly and critically when they are faced with similar challenges to their worldview.

Part Two: Finding the Flaws

Chapter 7: Suicide: Views That Self-Destruct

The first flaw that Koukl explains is based on the law of noncontradiction. This is quite familiar: if some claim contradicts itself, it cannot be true. A common example would be "there is no truth." In this case, the claim self-destructs because if there is no truth, then the claim cannot be true. Using the Columbo tactic explained in Part One to expose this problem, the question could be posed, "Is that true?" Koukl goes through several other common examples of views that self-destruct and provides appropriate questions to ask in order to bring attention to the contradictory nature of the claims.

Chapter 8: Practical Suicide

Self-destruction is a necessary implication of a view that is internally contradictory, but that is not the only way a view necessarily commits suicide. The other way is contradiction between the view and expression or defense of the view. Koukl provides several examples of this type of suicide: moral relativism, religious relativism, and determinism. If a moral relativist claims that it is wrong to judge another persons' actions, then they are guilty of that exact judgment. If a religious relativist tells someone that they are intolerant for telling another person their view is wrong, they have just told someone that their view is wrong. If a determinist gives reasons for believing determinism to be true, they assume that the other person can freely evaluate the argument and accept or reject it based on reasons. As with other problematic views, though, guiding questions can be used to bring the practical suicide into focus.

Chapter 9: Sibling Rivalry and Infanticide

There are finally two more ways in which a view can self-destruct that Koukl calls "sibling rivalry" and "infanticide." The first is exhibited in a view that makes contradicting truth claims (internal inconsistency). An example provided by Koukl is the claim that homosexuality is right because it is natural while also claiming that same-sex raising of kids is right despite the fact that it is unnatural. This tactic can be used anytime that a person makes a claim then contradicts the claim with another claim. If they understand the problem, they will be forced to choose one view or the other.

The second is similar to "sibling rivalry" but the claim being made is contradicted by its own foundation. The same concept is found in "undermining." An example of such is the claim that the presence of evil in the world argues against God's existence. In order for evil to actually exist in the world, there must be a standard by which to judge what is good and evil, but that is exactly what the argument is trying to disprove, so in order for the argument to go through, it must first assume what it is trying to disprove. God's existence is the foundation for evil actually existing, so evil cannot be an argument against God's existence. The argument self-destructs because its "child" claim ("God does not exist") contradicts its "parent" claim ("God does exist").

Chapter 10: Taking the Roof Off

Moving from addressing arguments that commit suicide, Koukl now discusses another way to demonstrate the absurdity of a claim: "Taking the Roof Off." He explains that since every person lives in the world that God has created but wishes to deny such, they necessarily end up with contradictions between what they claim and what actually is. In order to avoid dealing with these contradictions, they erect a "roof" over their view. The goal of this tactic is to remove that "roof" so that they are faced with the implications of their contradiction.

The way to employ this tactic is to adopt the person view for the sake of argument, think through its logical implications in your mind, then bring to light any that the person would usually deny. An example of this tactic involves one's view of abortion. Many of the reasons given for having an abortion can also be applied to toddlers. Koukl explains that, for instance, if someone supports abortion to avoid future child abuse, then the same reasoning necessarily allows for toddlers to be killed for the same reason. Since the person, in most cases, would deny such an implication, they must rethink their original claim. Usually such claims "prove too much," meaning that when taken to their logical conclusion, they lead to absurd results. In such cases, the person making the claim will either change their claim or affirm the unsavory implication to remain consistent.

Chapter 11: Steamroller

Up to this point, the tactics presented have assumed that the two people in conversation are both being reasonable. However, rejection of a view can originate outside of reason. They often cannot let go of emotional experiences with admitting they're wrong, prejudices they have against opposing views, or their right as free agents to reject their Creator. In many cases, these people try to win a discussion by running over the other person with interruptions, questions, and challenges without waiting for an answer, and being overall belligerent. Koukl calls this type of person a "steamroller."

When a person like this is encountered, Koukl recommends a calm and gracious response in three steps (if more than the first or second are necessary). The first is to simply stop the person and ask for the time to respond. The second is to explicitly call out the behavior and request courtesy. The third is to simply give the person the last word and walk away. These steps increase in strength and should be used in their proper order, lest we be seen as the person being ungracious in conversation. Koukl recognizes that these people can be frustrating and may never change their minds, but in many cases other people who are open are listening, and the kind and reasonable words offered in such antagonistic situations can go a long way in their pursuit of truth.

Chapter 12: Rhodes Scholar

Quite often people encounter claims from skeptics where the skeptic appeals to a scholar to support their particular challenge. Koukl explains that this can be done appropriately and inappropriately. In many cases, the skeptic has merely provided information- the fact that a scholar holds a particular view, but does not provide education- the reasons why the scholar holds the view. The "Rhodes Scholar" tactic involves discovering the reasons. Research (when time allows) and asking Columbo-style questions will help educate and will help flush out bad reasoning. Just because a person is an authority (a scholar) does not mean that they always have their facts right or that they have reasoned soundly. The truth of a claim is not dependent upon who claims it but upon its reflection of reality (truth). This tactic is extremely important not just in the discussion but also in our evaluation of claims made by the media and other information sources.

Chapter 13: Just the Facts, Ma'am

In many cases (including scholars), a challenge can be addressed simply by correcting incorrect information. Many challenges that come against the Christian worldview are based on inaccurate claims. Koukl explains that it is important to isolate the specific claim from all of the rhetoric in a claim (use the Columbo tactic) then check the claim for accuracy. When presenting the correct information, it is always more persuasive to include precise details rather than generalizations; this allows the person or the audience know that the Christian has done their research. However, sometimes, a claim does not even require research; the claim is outlandish itself. These often are problems with math (for instance, claiming a certain number of things happened during an amount of time that obviously doesn't allow for the events) and exaggerations offered as facts.

Chapter 14: More Sweat, Less Blood 

In the concluding chapter, Koukl encourages the reader to practice the tactics described in the book. However, not only with skeptics, but in groups of like-minded Christians. In these groups, Christians are in a safe environment. It is much better to sweat in training than it is to bleed in the field. He recalls a conversation that he heard where a Christian was witnessing, and from that conversation, he recognized eight simple tips that will help in such conversations. He encourages the reader to be prepared for conversations and not back down when the heat rises. He also cautions that reliance on these tactics is not to be done in lieu of further growing in knowledge, because without proper knowledge, the tactics are merely manipulations. Ultimately, the Christian needs to reflect Christ in their engagements. He concludes with a short creed for Christian Ambassadors.

Reviewer's Thoughts

I remember how awesome I thought this book was when I first read it, but going through it again, after I've had many of my own encounters, I see so much more wisdom throughout its pages today because I have seen the tactics work. Greg Koukl provides invaluable information and relates it to real situations. His method really helps put the Christian at ease while in conversation. Keeping in control of not just the conversation but also our demeanor is vital to making our case persuasive. All Christians are commanded to tell people about the Gospel and give reasons for the hope that we have, but many times, it can be intimidating. If you've been praying for confidence in sharing your faith or are looking for new ways to do so to reach more people for the Kingdom, this book may be the answer your prayers. I highly recommend this book for every Christian to read. I also recommend that churches keep a copy or two in their libraries for their members. This book needs to be put in as many Christian hands as possible.

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Check out Koukl's other book also: Relativism: Feet Firmly Planted In Mid-Air